Here’s the second part of Beth’s guest post…
Interview Your Characters
Imagine one of your characters is sitting across the table from you, sipping a beverage, and looking at you. Keep your story in mind as you ask questions. Interview them and take notes. If you don’t know your story at all yet, all the better. Let the interview unfold their story. Ask for specifics. Be detailed. Specifically, use sensory details, such as sight, sound, smell, touch, touch, and the internal body experiences.
If you have more than one main character in your story, answer these questions for each of them, including the antagonist or villain, and other important secondary characters.
Keep in mind your genre. This will give you a general idea of the kinds of characters that work best for the story you’re writing. Also keep in mind how you think your character where they start from and how they will change.
For our characters to feel real, relatable, engaging, and compelling, we need to know them well. For some writers, myself included, I really get to know my characters when I’m writing the first draft and when I’m editing. But I don’t skip this planning step. The answers you come up with will guide you with the rest of the planning, and when you’re writing and editing.
Allow anywhere from one to fifteen minutes to answer each interview question for your character.
- What would you like? What goals do you have, externally and internally? What’s your big vision for your life for the inner and outer goals?
An outer goal is tangible and external to your character. It’s something anyone can see, touch, and hear.
An inner goal is a feeling experience, internal to your character, non-tangible and deeply personal.
- Why do you want these things? What would happen if you didn’t get them? In other words, what’s at stake?
We’re exploring your character’s motivation. It’s worth spending extra brainstorming time here and not stop with the first answer you get. Dig deeper and ask, “Once you have what you want, what will having that do for you?” Ask four or five times to see if you can get to the heart of the matter.
- What is in the way of you getting what you want? Other people? Circumstances? Fears? Concerns?
This question explores the conflict your character experiences. Conflict is an internal experience, including fears and contradictions. It is also an external experience, someone else wanting what the character has, or someone wanting what the character also wants. Either way it seems like only one person can have it.
- What are your strengths? What are you good at? What natural and learned skills do you have? What are your aptitudes? What things were you given, both literally and figuratively, that make your life good?
Explore your character’s strengths. These could be things your character was born with as well as people, objects, education, and other experiences in their life.
- What are the important relationships in your life and why? Describe who they are and what kind of relationship you have with each one?
Include both the good and the difficult relationships that feel key to the story and to your character.
- What kind of education have you received?
For your character’s education, brainstorm what’s relevant to your story, and include both the formal and the informal, the on-the-job training.
- What is your home like? What are your living circumstances? How do you feel about where you live?
Describe the intimate details of their intimate environment. Be specific in your sensory details.
- What kind of transportation do you use and how do you feel about it? What do you wish you could drive or take?
This may be self-explanatory, but don’t skip it, in case their mode of transportation is relevant to your story and to your character’s sense of self.
- Tell me about the most trying event or experience in your life. How does that relate to your goals?
Pick one event and describe the key sensory elements that deeply affected your main character. Search for the experience in their past, maybe far in their past, that shapes who they are today as it is relevant to your story, your story theme, and your story genre. What other key elements are important in their backstory that occurred to you that you want to jot down?
- What are your most prized possessions, things you can’t live without? What do you carry with you everywhere and how: car, purse, backpack, back pocket, etc.? What meaning do these objects have to you?
One item can tell a lot about your character. Sketch out the object or find images for it. Be specific in the details. They matter to your character. Your job is to know what the object is and why it matters. This question is inspired by Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried.
- How would you describe your appearance: height, weight, body type, etc.? How would someone else describe your appearance: love interest, villain, other important people?
How your character describes their appearance can tell a lot about their self-image. Knowing how other people view them allows you another insight into their relationships.
- How would someone else, not you, describe your personality?
This question will give insight into your character’s complexity. If you practice this question in the real world with your friends, you may hear a range of answers that show another sense of self.
- What habit, mannerism, or ticks do you have?
If your character doesn’t know their own ticks, interview someone close to them who would know. For the purposes of story planning, pick one or two specific actions that they do a lot.
- How do you like to dress? What do you normally wear? What’s in your closet that you never wear? What do you wear for formal occasions? Informal occasions? Why do you make these choices? How do you feel towards clothing?
Perhaps a mundane topic, but how you clothe your characters can say a lot about their personality, their culture, and their work.
- What do you do for work? How do you feel about it?
Inquiring about work can give insight into your character’s identity or conflicts and shed light on important relationships or areas of tension.
- What do you really hope for? What do you yearn for? What do you dream about?
Ask each question to see if you trigger a different response, and don’t settle for the clichéd or easy answer.
- What is your impossible dream, the one no one knows about?
Maybe you’ll surprise yourself and your character with this answer.
- Is there anything else you haven’t told me that you’d like to share?
Write down your authorly observations and anything at all that occurs to you to note about your character.
Schedule time to get to know your characters. Dive into each question and see how far you get. You could do the above exercises in short chunks, ten to twenty minutes a day, or do them all in an afternoon or evening. Also, notice what you like about your characters and notice what surprises you or what you didn’t like about them.
Adapted and excerpted from our latest book for writers, Plan Your Like A Pro: And Have Fun Doing It! More details here: https://writersfunzone.com/blog/2018/11/19/plan-your-novel-like-a-pro-and-have-fun-doing-it/.
Beth Barany is creativity coach for writers, a teacher, workshop facilitator, and speaker, who helps fiction writers experience clarity, so that they can write and polish their novels, and proudly publish them to the delight of their readers.